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The Rebel Jesus and the Sabbath


Commentary for discussion on Sabbath, May 2, 2015.

The two passages in Luke 6 that the Adult Bible Study Guide focused on this week are extremely familiar to Seventh-day Adventists. We are such a strongly Sabbath-keeping movement, and so focused on the seventh-day Sabbath, that inevitably we are drawn to all those passages in scripture that deal with how God’s people of ancient times kept the Sabbath. Yet I wonder whether familiarity has not blinded us to just how radical are the teachings of Jesus in the two stories Luke tells.[1]

In my experience, contemporary SDAs are quite happy with Jesus’s teaching in these two passages. Maybe that’s because the divine license “to do good on the Sabbath day” (6:9)[2] is essential for the industrial-scale operations of some of our big hospitals. If anyone questions whether there is any meaningful difference between the hospital on a Friday, Sabbath and Sunday we will always be told: “Well, what do you want us to do, let people suffer?” But actually surely plans could be made to really restrict work on the seventh day. (In the same way whenever anyone questions just why so many ostensibly Adventist hospitals in the US have so few Adventist staff, the answer is always: “What do you want us to do?” How about making a long-range plan to increase the percentage of church members? Then the institutions might be Adventist in more than name.) The second story, in particular, is convenient for us. The first story, about the disciples picking heads of grain, is less obviously relevant to the way we “do” Sabbath today, in practice, but cynically I feel inclined to wonder whether we don’t like to cite this passage to show how unlegalist we are.

Did our pioneers, I wonder, back in the day, when Ellen White herself said that “we have preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa that had neither dew nor rain,” view these two stories quite as positively?[3] Mightn’t they have found Christ’s cavalier disregard for God’s Law on the Sabbath rather troubling? I’d love to read something on this part of our history, and haven’t found anything yet on how early Adventists read Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath in the New Testament. But I kind of guess that if there weren’t a mandate in the teachings of Jesus for the positions He adopted, described in Luke 6:1-11, those positions, with their evident disdain for the jot and tittle of the precepts found in the Old Testament, would I suspect have been condemned by “good Adventists.”

What a blessing it is, then, that we are in no doubt about how Jesus understood the teachings of the Law about the Sabbath. In consequence of His words and actions as recorded by Luke, we necessarily accept firstly that: “The Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath”; and secondly that it is “lawful on the Sabbath to do good”—it is right “to save life,” and on the seventh day followers of the Law (and of Christ, the embodiment of the Law) should not “do evil [or] destroy” (vv. 5 and 9).

* * *

Even apart from whether Adventists historically have always been as accepting of this teaching as we seem to be today, there is the question of whether we truly understand why the Pharisees “were filled with rage, and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus” (v. 11). Note that the Pharisees were incensed and began to scout options for ways to harm Jesus—just because he had healed! It seems an over reaction, to put it mildly. I want to suggest that we have, through familiarity, lost sight of how radical Jesus is being in the twin stories of Luke chapter 6, how his Sabbath-breaking (which is how zealous Jews must have seen it) violated the conventions of early first-century Jewish religion, and how shocking his theory and praxis would have seemed.

In the first story, Christ’s “disciples plucked the heads of grain and ate them, rubbing themintheir hands” on the Sabbath (v. 1). It is easy to forget that Law doesn’t just prohibit work in general; it also explicitly forbids harvesting. This does not occur in the first iteration of the Ten Commandments, in Exodus 20, but is specified in one of several re-iterations: “You shall work six days, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during plowing time and harvest you shall rest.” (Exod. 34:21 NASB)

Yet what were Jesus’ disciples doing? Harvesting! This story achieved a certain new notoriety in Adventist circles late last year, because of the way it featured in the so-called Position Three (or the “accord” position, as opposed to pro and con positions) on women’s ordination.[4] At least one “con” (and conservative) preacher has tried to reduce the significance of Christ’s endorsement of his disciples’ actions by reference to David and the showbread. According to this ingenious reading, the disciples hadn’t really broken the law because they had only pinched off the heads of the grains and then rubbed them between their hands. This wasn’t “harvesting.”[5] But this only works if we apply an incredibly narrow—pharisaical, indeed—frame to the fourth commandment, especially the Exodus 34 amplification of the original statement in Exodus 20.

In any case, most importantly, Jesus himself doesn’t justify the disciples actions by saying that they hadn’t really done any labor or harvesting, they’d just done some minor plucking and rolling—probably hadn’t even broken a sweat. No, in effect he concedes that they have done work on the Sabbath. In legal terms, he justifies the “crime” (the “sin”, as the Pharisees saw it) rather than denies it. And he does so by citing David’s action at Nob in eating the consecrated bread, an unusual and hard-to-understand story, which could probably be safely ignored, except that Christ himself uses it to establish a crucial principle. Even explicit divine injunctions have to be understood in terms of their purpose: the Sabbath was not instituted to punish men and women but to be a blessing to them. As Jesus put it on another occasion: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

And so, Christ instructs his interlocutors in Luke 6, just as David was justified in eating the showbread, violating an explicit provision of the Mosaic Law, in order to preserve life and health, so his followers may reasonably do low-key labor on the seventh day. Their actions are justified because done “in pursuit of higher principles of the preservation of life, health, or well being of the community [of believers] and its members.”[6]

In the second story, Christ follows this principle but even more so: now he, himself, heals—a far more dramatic act, and probably for that reason one that the Pharisees thought undoubtedly entailed work. This was partly a failure of imagination on their part. Ordinary healing of the day did involve a great deal of labor. Christ himself sometimes, of course, undertook some laborious action as part of his healing—making a paste, for example. But generally he seems to have healed simply by his word, or by power going out of him, as he memorably stated when he (apparently inadvertently) cured the woman with hemorrhagic bleeding. No labor was required! Pharisaical reasoning made no provision for such effortless healing.

Still, what was with the Pharisees? Did they actually want people to suffer, whether it by the pangs of hunger, or destructive illness? 

* * *

We need to remind ourselves of why the Pharisees came into existence and what their (admittedly self-appointed) purpose was. Many of the books of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) describe Israelite apostasy, idolatry, and how this led to the destruction first of Samaria, then of Jerusalem, and the loss of the promised land. Many Jews were determined that such disasters should never befall them again. If breaking the Law led to tragedy and ruin, then the Law must be kept perfectly. If the first generation or two of returned exiles was, as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah indicate, guilty of some slackness in commandment-keeping, the strong preaching of men like Nehemiah helped put that right. There was a strong tradition in post-exilic Judaism of attempting to keep the perfect law of God, perfectly.

The Seleucid persecution of Jewish religion, imposed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the mid-second century BC, almost resulted in another disaster. Sacrifices were forbidden, as was observing Sabbaths and feasts. Circumcision, the special sign of divine election, was prohibited, on pain of death, and an image of Zeus was placed on the altar of the Temple. Many Jews, including some priests and Levites, gave way in the face of this pressure, apostatizing. However, the Maccabean resurgence, which was both political and theological, ensured the preservation of the Mosaic Law and of the worship of the one true God. But many of the time blamed those who had apostatized, in some cases before Antiochus instituted harsh laws against Jewish religious practice.[7]

The Pharisees emerged out of this period: for them, only the Maccabean revolt (during which apostates were often killed) had prevented another total disaster. Consequently the Pharisees were committed not only to observing the law perfectly themselves, but also to promoting commandment keeping by all the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For if any of them broke the law, it might invoke divine punishment of the people as a whole. And this time there might be no return from exile, no Maccabean deliverer.

And this is why the Pharisees were so outraged by Jesus’s actions. They feared that if a teacher like Jesus set the wrong example—and did so not only in his praxis, but also in theory, in his teachings—then God’s people would soon be accelerating down a slippery slope, with apostasy and catastrophe waiting at the bottom. And the ends (of preserving Israel) justified the means—harsh words and plans for harsher deeds which saw their final fulfillment on Golgotha.

To be fair to the Pharisees, they probably didn’t want to see anyone suffer. They surely would have rationalized their actions by saying that the disciples would only have gone hungry briefly, until they could eat after sundown. Did a few short-term hunger pangs matter in contrast to a flagrant violation of divine commands about the Sabbath? As for the man “whose right hand was withered” (v. 6), well, probably it had been withered a long time. Did it matter if Jesus cured him after sunset or the next day? The Pharisees probably wondered and muttered, “What’s the big hurry? Which is more important: God’s law or momentary inconvenience?”

* * *

And this is where I find myself speculating, early Adventists might well have had the same view—if, that is, Jesus hadn’t set the record straight. What’s the hurry? Isn’t God’s law the most important thing?

Remarkably, given the tone of much of the Bible, it turns out no, it isn’t. It’s the divine precepts underpinning the written law that are the most important thing.

This message was abhorrent to the first-century Pharisees (and to the twenty-first-century Pharisaical among us). But we know that truth today, thanks be to God, because Jesus went out of his way to make sure we understood the Law. Jesus was a rebel—so much so that the spiritual powers of his day eventually destroyed him. But first he showed us the divine love, all loves excelling, that underlies the law, and should shape how we interpret it today. I don’t think we should be trying to find loopholes in the fourth commandment; maybe we should actually be trying to expand it, so its blessings can be even more widely felt! But the bottom line is that the Sabbath was not intended to effect human suffering. Instead it exists to promote human welfare. We know this because of the rebellious, radical teaching—both in theory and in practice—of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


[1] I am aware that some Seventh-day Adventists today are trendily joining mainline Protestant theologians in casting doubt on the traditional authorship not only, say, of Hebrews and Matthew (where the traditions are late and, in the case of Hebrews, debated from an early time) but also of Luke, not to mention some of the Pauline epistles which are now fashionably dubbed pseudo-Pauline. Having studied Classics, however, in the case of any other paired texts that demonstrably date to the second century CE and both putatively and probably the first century, and that have a very ancient tradition of authorship, which is consistent with what is known about first-person statements within them (see Acts!), they would be accepted as by the alleged author, almost without question, unless either there was some major internal reason not to (which isn’t the case with Luke and Acts). Or unless it is books of the Bible, in which case normal critical rules are suspended so scholars can rush to demonstrate their skeptical bona fides. The truth is, if Luke (and Acts) weren’t in the New Testament, and Luke wasn’t said to be an associate of the Apostle Paul, every classicist would take for granted Luke’s authorship. So rather than applying a double standard to scripture, I go against some current fashions in Biblical scholarship and accept the Lukan authorship of the gospel that bears his name.

[2] Unless otherwise stated, all biblical quotations are from the New King James Version.

[3] Review and Herald, Mar. 11, 1890, p. 146

[4] For the way this passage was dealt with, see the “Position Summary 3”, pp. 13-14, available at

[6] This is the neat formulation of “Position Summary 3”, p. 14.

[7] See on the Maccabees and Maccabean Revolt: Thomas Fischer, Seleukiden und Makkabäer. Beiträge zur Seleukidengeschichte und zu den politischen Ereignissen in Judäa während der 1. Hälfte des 2. Jahrhunderts v. Christ(Bochum: Kommission beim Studienverlag N. Brockmeyer, 1980); Dov Gera, Judaea and Mediterranean Politics, 219 to 161 B.C.E., Jewish Studies, 8 (Leiden: Brill, 1998).

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